Syria’s Assad says military operations ended

Activists say Syrian troops have shot dead nine people in the central city of Homs.

Last Updated: Aug 18, 2011, 15:22 PM IST

Amman: Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has told UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon that military and police operations against pro-democracy protesters have stopped, but activists reported more bloodshed overnight.

Local activists said two protesters were shot dead by pro-Assad militiamen on Wednesday after nightly Ramadan prayers in the city of Homs, and security forces carried out raids on districts of Hama and the capital Damascus.

The United States was expected to call on Assad to step down, sources in Washington said. That call could come as soon as Thursday, with the European Union expected to follow suit, the sources said.

As well as the growing Western pressure, Assad also faces criticism from regional Arab states and neighbouring Turkey over his escalated military campaign against the uprising since the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan on August 01.

"Assad is trying to convince Turkey that the attacks have stopped, which could also help appease the United States, thinking he could once again stop Washington from calling on him to step down," a Western diplomat in Damascus said.

"But the operations have not even stopped."

Although Syrian authorities have announced the Army`s withdrawal from Hama and Deir al-Zor, residents say military units are still present in those cities. The Army is also still deployed in Homs and the coastal city of Latakia.

Hama residents said Syrian forces raided homes in al-Qusour neighbourhood overnight, while hundreds of police and shabbiha militiamen stormed the Rukn al-Din neighbourhood of Damascus.

In the southern city of Deraa, where the protests first broke out in March, a resident said tanks and armoured vehicles stood at entrances of the city and in main squares around Deraa`s the old quarter. Security forces raided homes in the Sabeel district overnight, he said.

In a phone call with Assad on Wednesday, Ban expressed alarm at reports of widespread violations of human rights and excessive use of force by the Syrian security forces against civilians, the UN said in a statement.

"The Secretary-General emphasised that all military operations and mass arrests must cease immediately. President Assad said that the military and police operations had stopped," the statement said.

Referral to ICC

A UN official said last week nearly 2,000 civilians had been killed since the protests began five months ago. Syria has expelled most independent media since the unrest began, making it difficult to verify reports from the country

The UN human rights chief is expected to suggest that the UN Security Council refer Syria`s crackdown on pro-democracy protesters to the International Criminal Court, envoys said.

In the besieged port city of Latakia, focus of the latest military campaign, residents said on Wednesday that Syrian forces raided houses in a Sunni district, arresting hundreds of people and taking them to a stadium.

Assad`s forces have also attacked al-Raml, a seafront area where a Palestinian refugee camp was built in the 1950s.

Latakia is of particular significance to Assad, from Syria`s minority Alawite community. The 45-year-old President, a self-declared champion of the Palestinian cause, comes from a village to the southeast, where his father is buried. The Assad family and their friends control the city`s port and finances.

Some Palestinians have joined in demonstrations against Assad, even though Syria hosts exiled leaders of the Islamist Palestinian Hamas movement and other Palestinian groups.

Camp deserted

Chris Gunness, spokesman for the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees, said three refugees had been killed at the camp. Many had been wounded in the assault.

"UNRWA`s information indicates that most of the inhabitants have indeed left and that there are only five to 10 vulnerable families remaining, unable to physically leave," Gunness said.

He said about 150 families had fled to Homs, in central Syria, where anti-Assad unrest has also been put down.

The United Nations said on Wednesday it had evacuated 26 non-essential staff from the country.

UN human rights chief Navi Pillay will address the 15-nation UN Security Council in a closed-door session on Syria on Thursday, along with UN humanitarian chief Valerie Amos.

Bureau Report